Free Press sports writer Nick Baumgardner breaks down what happened in Michigan football’s 41-15 loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
ATLANTA — Shea Patterson tried his best to lend some optimism in the wake of another nightmare loss.
His words made sense.
Even if his coaching staff didn’t heed them.
“You see Nico Collins flourishing, Tarik Black coming on the scene and Donovan Peoples-Jones making plays,” Michigan’s quarterback said Saturday night when asked about what this offense might look like next year. “It’s all about getting guys the ball in open space. That’s what the best teams do. They find a way to win one-on-one matchups, they find a way to isolate their best players.”
It all makes sense. With one problem.
Michigan didn’t do that in 2018, not nearly enough anyway. And as coach Jim Harbaugh enters a fifth season in Ann Arbor, his operation has to either adapt or get left behind for good.
And certainly not good enough for a fan base whose unrelenting demands often border on impossible.
Michigan’s football team was exposed in its final two acts of 2018. The first, a thrashing at Ohio State in November, was the most telling.
When faced with elite speed on the opposing sideline, Michigan had no answer. Not fast enough in nearly enough places. And not forward-thinking enough to take advantage of the areas where speed and big-play ability actually exists.
The defense crumbled in stubbornness. But so did the offense. And that’s still the bigger issue.
In 2018, Harbaugh’s offense seemed to care more about time of possession than getting its best players on the field at the same time in an effort to create opportunities for explosive plays in big moments.
Michigan was conservative and stubborn at Ohio State and paid dearly for it.
A month later, Harbaugh was conservative and stubborn against Florida, and got laughed out of Atlanta.
Collins, Peoples-Jones and Black are Michigan’s best offensive players. Yet the number of times all three were on the field together during either the Ohio State or Florida games could probably be counted on two hands. All three have NFL ability. All three might be entering the 2019 season with NFL dreams in the following spring.
Michigan didn’t have Black at full strength this season, and while Harbaugh said the staff had been careful with him late in the year, Black told reporters Saturday night he has been healthy enough to play.
If Harbaugh and his staff waste this trio in 2019, this offense will suffer ramifications felt far beyond one 12-game schedule.
If those three aren’t featured with Patterson from start to finish next season, then the question becomes: Why on earth would an elite offensive skill player ever want to come play in this stiff system?
Put simply, they won’t.
Harbaugh told reporters Saturday night he doesn’t anticipate any staff changes this offseason. Whether or not that holds up remains to be seen, but it’s clear something has to change.
Michigan has too much ability to plod around the field like this. Too much talent to be mashing the ball for zero yards on third and fourth down with a fullback. This offense takes forever to get a play called, likely thanks in large part to Harbaugh’s convoluted play-calling system — something he has refused to discuss or address all year, or at any point during his tenure.
Michigan has the personnel to run a modern offense. It made strides in the right direction this season, but far too often it felt like someone trying to drag a piano up a mountain.
The Wolverines are big and strong enough to push around most of the teams in the Big Ten and beat everyone not named Ohio State. But in a world where nothing else matters — and make no mistake, Michigan now lives in that world — those losses are an issue.
The odds of Harbaugh hiring someone to run his offense for him seem long, as he has always done things his way without apology. He has been honest with himself plenty of times throughout his career. He was last season, when he said good-bye to his longest-tenured assistant (Tim Drevno), re-shuffled his staff and went after Patterson despite having a crowded, young quarterback room.
But he must adapt his offense.
Defensively, the same thing must happen. It’s hard to crash too hard on defensive coordinator Don Brown, whose defenses have been stout for years on this level. But, much like the offense, everything is becoming predictable.
Which, in the end, is Michigan football in a nutshell.
Not fast enough against elite teams. Unable to deliver when it matters most. Unable to finish. Unable to get over the hump.
Entirely and completely predictable.
Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh recaps Peach Bowl after the 41-15 loss to Florida on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Atlanta.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner.